Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History
  • .: Phil Magness’ Blog :.

    Personal blog of Dr. Phil Magness, historian of the American Civil War and the 19th Century United States. Here I will post my thoughts and commentary on current research topics, upcoming events, and the general state of academia.
  • March 2018
    M T W T F S S
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  • Abolitionists, Communists, and Jacobin magazine’s fake Jeff Davis quote

    Posted By on March 4, 2018

    One of the stranger recent currents in historical discussions around slavery involves an increasingly common attempt by scholars and activists on the far left to enlist historical abolitionists as ideological ammunition to the causes of anti-capitalism or even socialism. A primary motivating factor appears to be the so-called “New History of Capitalism” (NHC) genre of books by Sven Beckert, Ed Baptist and others who have all advanced arguments that portray capitalism and slavery as deeply intertwined and interdependent economic systems.

    The abolitionist extension of the NHC argument may be seen at several places in Manisha Sinha’s recent book The Slave’s Cause. While not a primary thesis of Sinha’s book, she does indulge the claimed link between abolitionism and anti-capitalism, citing the NHC literature. The argument as she presents it is a strange one, relying largely on a rhetorical sleight of hand that notes “if slavery is capitalism, as the currently fashionable historical interpretation has it, the movement to abolish it is, at the very least, its obverse.”

    Of course for that claim to be true, the currently fashionable NHC interpretation must first be accepted, and that remains a highly dubious proposition (for those interested, I critique this genre at length in What Is Classical Liberal History?, my new book with Michael Douma). But it is also wanting on another front. Establishing abolitionism as the obverse of capitalism requires – at minimum – some evidence of the abolitionists’ alleged hostility to capitalism.

    Abolitionism was a complex and multifaceted movement spanning not only multiple political factions but also several continents, so providing substantiation for the claim is no small task. It must also get around the unambiguous philosophical affinities for laissez-faire political economy that several of the more prominent abolitionist leaders incorporated into their philosophical systems (William Lloyd Garrison in the U.S. and Richard Cobden in Britain, for example, both had strong philosophical proclivities toward free market or laissez-faire economics). And finally it must also address the pronounced anti-capitalist undercurrents that many of the late antebellum proslavery theorists put forth as their own (see here in particular).

    A full discussion of these topics could probably fill an entire book, but one certain obstacle that the NHC reinterpretation of the abolitionists (as well as its more brazen variants among self-described socialist claimants of abolitionism) is a shortage of evidence in favor of the claimed link. One has to reach pretty deeply into the abolitionist barrel to find socialist adherents of the cause, and few if any of them had comparable stature to Garrison, Douglass, Sumner, Higginson or similar figures who operated more comfortably within classical liberal philosophical frameworks.

    To get around this problem, a fairly recent article in the far-left magazine Jacobin attempted to make the case for “ideological connections between abolitionism and socialism” by turning to abolitionism’s slaveholding critics to make their argument for them. The meandering piece offers very little in the way of historical context to substantiate its argument, preferring instead to assert it by declamation and pad it a bit with armchair intersectionality theory that supposedly demonstrates an overlapping of various social causes. But they also bolster this claim with a list of cherrypicked quotations from slaveholders.

    A pair of quotes come from the notorious pro-slavery theorist George Fitzhugh in which he ascribes socialist or communist monikers to his adversaries, albeit with very little context. This is done for a reason, as Fitzhugh himself is a poor witness to bring to Jacobin’s cause. They do so through selective editing, but only to omit the fact that Fitzhugh professed a radical anti-capitalist vision that trended strongly toward the philosophical tendencies of the reactionary socialist Thomas Carlyle. It was Fitzhugh who urged slave-owning southerners to “throw Adam Smith, Say, Ricardo & Co., in the fire” and who declared the theory of laissez-faire to be “at war with all kinds of slavery, for they in fact assert that individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least.”

    Although now deprived of Fitzhugh, Jacobin has a few more testimonials for its case. The most prominent remaining example by far is future Confederate president Jefferson Davis himself, or so it would seem. Jacobin’s author accordingly quotes Davis asserting that “the European Socialists, who, in wild radicalism, . . . are the correspondents of the American abolitionists” and proceeding to place them in league with the French socialist-anarchist theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The crusade against slavery, he continues, would “superinduce attacks on all property, North and South” and, presumably, lead to an ascendance of socialism in America.

    If no less than the president of the Confederacy declared that the abolitionists were in league with the socialists, then surely it’s a powerful case for not only the NHC genre but Jacobin’s own even more extreme spin in which the forces who stood against slavery also stood for socialist upheaval.

    But there’s a problem. The unsourced Jefferson Davis quote is not a Jefferson Davis quote at all. It’s actually a misattributed passage by Caleb Cushing, a Massachusetts politician and diplomat who sided with the Union during the Civil War. Cushing’s address was delivered at a meeting in Bangor, Maine on January 6, 1860 and reprinted shortly thereafter in the newspaper excerpt below:

    Where and how this passage received its misattribution is uncertain, as the Jacobin article gave neither a source nor even a date. The episode is nonetheless highly representative of the quality of the argument that article advances. Along with easily identified misrepresentations of Fitzhugh that obscure his avowed anti-capitalism, Jacobin‘s main evidence for a socialist-aligned “red abolitionism” comes down to a fake Jeff Davis quote.

    The Epistemic Toxins of False Historical Claims

    Posted By on February 27, 2018

    Allegations of racism carry a substantial social stigma in today’s intellectual climate. Provided that the allegation is valid, this may be a desirable effect. Racism is insidiously unethical as it fundamentally devalues the targeted person. This may make it worthy of not only condemnation, but the ostracizing that often follows a racist action. Knowledge that racism will be forthrightly condemned and socially penalized is a highly effective means of making racist beliefs and behaviors costly to maintain – and thereby discouraging their propagation.

    For the same reason though, racism is not a charge to throw around lightly. Accusing an innocent person of racist beliefs or actions can destroy a reputation and unfairly subject its target to the derision and scorn we might legitimately direct at a genuine act of racism. To falsely charge someone with racism, or to even mislead others into making and believing that charge, is therefore an unethical act of another type.

    This brings us back to the subject of Democracy in Chains, a 2017 book by Nancy MacLean about the academic career of the late economist James M. Buchanan. Although Democracy in Chains was published on a trade press that does not utilize peer review, its author has traded in on the currency of her own academic prestige to present it as a scholarly work. MacLean is the holder of a prestigious chair at Duke University, and has used the occasion of this book to lecture widely at universities across the United States. Her paying hosts include several Ivy League institutions and other top ranked history departments.

    Democracy in Chains is a deeply problematic book though, and not simply because it never saw peer review. As I’ve discussed and documented extensively on this blog, its author also misuses and misrepresents historical evidence to portray Buchanan as a complicit figure in the segregationist “massive resistance” to Brown v. Board in the 1950s and 60s. The problem with MacLean’s analysis is that this charge – a central thesis of her book and by far its most bombastic claim – is a historical falsehood. MacLean’s cited documentation simply does not support her contention of complicity, and in fact counter-evidence that she overlooked, ignored, or omitted shows the exact opposite to be true. Buchanan had no interest in segregation, and in fact condemned it at multiple points across his long academic career, starting as early as his doctoral dissertation in 1948 (for a detailed analysis of these findings see the paper-length discussion here).

    Unfortunately, MacLean’s false charges of segregationist complicity and other insinuations of racism have had a poisonous effect upon the academic discourse around Buchanan’s scholarly contributions. Relying upon MacLean’s own academic prestige, numerous other scholars have accepted her depictions of Buchanan at face value, believing them to be the product of meticulous archival research. In turn, they attach the social stigma of racism to Buchanan’s name. His scholarly contributions, it then follows, may be dismissed, discarded, and maligned.

    In her more careful moments, MacLean stops just short of making the charge of racism herself (although numerous other less guarded moments also exist). A few of MacLean’s more tendentious defenders have claimed exoneration of her work on account of hedging its claims with allegedly nuanced and non-committal phrasing by way of qualifiers in her text. Call it the innuendo defense: “she didn’t actually call Buchanan a racist, she simply tricked her readers into believing he was a racist through word games,” as if that somehow makes it better.

    What’s absolutely certain though is that the overwhelming majority of MacLean’s sympathetic readers reached the intended conclusion, and now casually toss around false and reckless claims of racism when discussing Buchanan’s work. The examples are numerous. Citing MacLean, political scientist Richard Saull recently deemed Buchanan “a supporter of Jim Crow.” Legal scholar Ariela Gross places him in league with overt segregationists in a mission “to preserve Jim Crow.” Historian Bethany Moreton, who also invokes the aforementioned innuendo defense of MacLean, nonetheless attributes Buchanan’s work on public choice theory to “racist roots.” Education scholars Eleni Schirmer and Michael W. Apple nonchalantly accuse Buchanan of advancing a “white supremacist” ideology cloaked in the “race-neutral language” of economics.

    The most bombastic example to date comes from James Brewer Stewart, himself a distinguished historian of abolitionism. Citing MacLean’s discovery of what he alleges to be Buchanan’s “historical DNA,” Stewart repeats the charge of racist motivation and extends it in even more reckless directions than MacLean’s original work. The product not only tarnishes Buchanan with racism, but stops just short of placing him in the vicinity of Ku Klux Klan rallies and accusing him of wanting to revive a modern version of a pro-slavery political ideology:

    “With sit-ins and Klan rallies erupting around him Buchanan, like the nullifiers, fastened his attention on the overreaching, grasping, oppressing government power over highly privileged whites, saying not a word about the menace of militant blacks. The DNA shared by alt-righters and fire eating slaveholders now begins to come into focus and what takes shape in our vision is two ideologies, born in the midst of racial crisis, both advancing the interests of ultra rich white people while never trafficking openly in white supremacy.”

    While Stewart briefly invokes the innuendo defense himself by hedging on whether the evidence could establish the bombastic claims he just made – now extended to both Buchanan and the Koch Brothers. He then removes any doubt of where he personally stands though, asserting a “family likeness” between them and the racist alt-right of today. In a later passage he follows an extended digression into the radical pro-slavery “fire-eater” ideology of antebellum South Carolina by asserting “James M. Buchanan, one strongly suspects, likely would have approved.”

    Stewart since has claimed some defense for his angry rhetoric by pointing to the op-ed format of his piece, yet ethical considerations still remain. Opinion writing certainly encompasses the art of provocation, but it is not a license to make reckless allegations, be they outright or through innuendo (and Stewart, like MacLean, does both).

    Regardless of the medium, historians are still ethically obliged to faithfully represent the past even if they differ as to particulars of interpretation. History is an evidence-based craft. In the cases of Stewart and MacLean, we see instances of two highly regarded historians making claims that disregard their evidentiary obligations to the past and, instead, advance a politically motivated line of attack that aims to paint another recently-deceased scholar with unsubstantiated charges of racism. Note that the effect is the same, whether they make this charge directly or by heavy innuendo (and in MacLean’s case we’ve seen instances of both). The result is that Buchanan, a widely cited and influential contributor to the field of economics, is now casually associated with racist actions that he played no part in and that his accusers have utterly failed to substantiate. The result is epistemically destructive to the scholarly discourse and, sadly, much of that destruction appears to be intentional.

    Eugenics and the Origins of the AAUP

    Posted By on January 13, 2018

    The history behind the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) almost always begins with the case of Edward A. Ross. A prominent economist and sociologist in his day, Ross was forced to resign from his faculty position at Stanford University in November 1900 after running afoul of the political views of the university’s surviving namesake, Jane Stanford. Ross’s dismissal set into motion the events that culminated in the founding of the AAUP, some fifteen years later.

    The incident prompted John Dewey to compose a formal defense of academic freedom in the January 1902 issue of Educational Review, which later served as the basis for the AAUP’s own founding principles. The American Economic Association also conducted an investigation into the episode under the charge of Columbia University’s Edwin R.A. Seligman, severely chastising Stanford’s actions. Ross’s dismissal even precipitated a wave of faculty resignations from Stanford in protest, starting with his philosophy department colleague Arthur Lovejoy. Dewey, Seligman, and Lovejoy would all go on to become the principal charter members of the AAUP, as well as early presidents of the organization. Lovejoy would later identify the Ross case as a crucial precipitating event in the formation of the organization.  Seligman took charge of organizing what became the organization’s main investigative body, the Committee A on Academic Freedom. And Ross himself would later go on to hold several positions within the leadership ranks of the AAUP.

    While political events certainly precipitated Ross’s forced resignation, a fair amount of confusion and mythology have come to characterize the exact nature of his disagreement with Mrs. Stanford. Ross and Stanford had previously clashed over the former’s support for William Jennings Bryan and the free silver movement during the 1896 election. He also allegedly criticized Jane Stanford’s late husband, California railroad baron and politician Leland Stanford, and further irritated her by advocating for municipal ownership of street railroads and utilities. The most immediate source of their tension though was a speech that Ross gave a few months prior to his dismissal in which the professor argued for the strengthening of immigration restrictions on Chinese and other Asian laborers.

    While acknowledging that Ross’s position on Chinese labor displayed a number of ugly racial undertones, the cause of the dispute itself is normally presented as a political struggle between Ross’s own strident progressivism and the politically conservative, moneyed interests of Mrs. Stanford and the railroad industry. The Stanford fortune, after all, came from a company that widely utilized Chinese laborers to construct its railroad lines. One version of the episode on the AAUP website even portrays Ross’s comments as “statements about railroad monopolies” – a substantially more innocuous cause than barring immigrants from entering the country. Another AAUP account states that Ross was dismissed for speaking out “against privately owned railroads and Chinese immigration” and heavily implies that the latter issue was only a derivative of the former, on account of the railroad tycoons habits of using Asian labor.

    The framing of the case as a battle between labor and the capitalist classes owes much to Ross’s own publicity campaign after his resignation, including a vocal self-portrayal as a martyr to free speech and to the values of the progressive political left. Ross organized an effective PR campaign by taking his case to the newspapers and enlisting other prominent academics from around the country to speak out on his behalf. In doing so he painted himself as a defender of the white working class against railroad industrialists and robber barons.

    Somewhere along the way, the retelling of this storied episode became separated from the immediate events that precipitated it. The earlier dispute over Bryan, the fight against railroad monopolies, and Ross’s progressive criticisms of the Stanford family fortune rose in prominence as secondary or even co-equal causes for his forced resignation. Ross’s remarks on Chinese immigration, while still acknowledged as a cause and condemned for taking a position that we now recognize today as racist, have lost their original specificity. His original remarks do not appear to have been reprinted in full since the San Francisco newspapers covered the story shortly after Ross’s resignation.

    This missing context is crucial, as they show that Ross went well beyond simply advancing a general economic argument against Chinese immigration, or expressing concern for worker conditions against the anti-labor antics of the railroad industry. Rather, his comments included an elaborate endorsement of racial eugenics and concluded on a bombastic appeal to Aryan nationalism.

    While we should recognize that Ross’s comments reflected a racial sentiment that was more common in his time than our own, Mrs. Stanford’s objections to them were also directly rooted in an objection to their prejudices and a belief that Ross intended them to inflame racial animosity against persons of Asian descent. They were also the unambiguous and immediate instigator of Ross’s dismissal. Other disputes such as the Bryan campaign and general labor agitation only reflect an ongoing history of tensions between Ross and Mrs. Stanford.

    The precipitating event happened on May 7, 1900 when Ross addressed a large public assembly on the “problem” of Chinese immigration. The meeting was overtly racist in character, featuring a succession of speakers who railed against the “Asiatic hordes” of immigrants. They adopted a resolution calling on Congress to expand the Chinese Exclusion Act, and extend its provisions to the Japanese, who allegedly mimicked American customs which “makes them more dangerous as competitors.” The San Francisco Call published a summary of Ross’s speech on May 8, 1900, as follows:

    “[Ross] declared that primarily the Chinese and Japanese are impossible among us because they cannot assimilate with us; they represent a different and an inferior civilization to our own and mean by their presence the degradation of American labor and American life. We demand a protection for the American workmen as well as for American products, the speaker insisted. And should the worst come to the worst it would be better for us if we were to turn our guns upon every vessel bringing Japanese to our shores rather than to permit them to land.”

    Jane Stanford read this summary in the newspaper and became incensed. As documented by historian James C. Mohr, she penned a letter to Stanford University president David Starr Jordan the next day stating that Professor Ross “should now be dismissed.” Mrs. Stanford made it absolutely clear that her grievance with Ross, though preceded by other disputes, derived in this case from his race prejudice. Using his university title, Ross had ventured “out of his sphere, to associate himself with political demagogues of this city, exciting their evil passions, drawing distinctions between man and man, all laborers and equal in the sight God, and literally plays into the hands of the lowest and vilest elements of socialism.” She also expressed concern that Ross’s inflammatory rhetoric could lead to violence, and compared them to an anti-Chinese racial riot in San Francisco some two decades prior that resulted in the racial murders of four Chinese immigrants and left much of the city’s Chinatown section in flames. It too had started as a “labor rally” to call for greater immigration restrictions. As sole trustee of the university, she instructed Jordan to provide Ross with “notice that he will not be re-engaged for the new year.” (Stanford to Jordan, May 9, 1900, Stanford University archives)

    Ross, Jordan, and Stanford engaged in a protracted negotiation over the course of the summer, with Jordan attempting in various degrees to prod Mrs. Stanford to back down from her demand. By early autumn however they had reached an impasse, and Ross prepared for his resignation – as well as an accompanying publicity campaign to draw attention to his cause. He wrote his mother on September 9 about both the state of affairs surrounding his job and the cause of the dispute, saying nothing of Bryan, of free silver, or of his calls for publicly owned transit and utilities. He stated one cause alone, and that was the Asian immigration speech:

    “Last May at Dr. Jordan’s suggestion I spoke at a mass-meeting to protest against Japanese and Chinese coolie immigration. I argued against letting in the coolies and the big Railroad people who want cheap yellow labor induced Mrs. Stanford, who is now very old and crochety, to dismiss me.”

    Ross noted that he was timing the announcement so as to “make a sensation on the Pacific slope” with the press. Other correspondence uncovered by Mohr suggests that Ross intentionally coordinated his public departure for November so as to generate publicity for the release of his forthcoming book, Social Control.

    It is the elusive text of Ross’s speech at the May 7, 1900 rally though that demonstrates the full severity of his racist and eugenic objectives. Several San Francisco newspapers as well as William Jennings Bryan’s newsletter obtained copies of it from Ross in November around the time of his public resignation. A key excerpt of the text appears below, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 15:

    Ross’s eugenic and racial objectives are a pervasive theme of his remarks, including a dire warning of a coming white “race suicide” in the face of declining birth rates compared to Asian populations. Notably, Ross is the academic who first popularized the overtly white supremacist theory of “race suicide” in a 1901 address to the American Academy of Political Science. That address was one of the many fruits of his highly effective publicity campaign to extol his own martyrdom the previous year. Therefore one of Ross’s most notorious scholarly contributions actually takes its root in the political speech that led to his dismissal from Stanford. Ross concluded his remarks with an equally inflammatory pledge to preserve California for the white race: “California, this latest and loveliest seat of the Aryan race, shall not become, if we can help it, the theater of such a stern wolfish struggle for existence as prevails throughout the Orient.”

    The severity of these remarks alone is cause to revisit Jane Stanford’s stated concerns with Professor Ross’s activities. While her objection was political in nature, the character of Ross’s statements involved a grossly inflammatory racial appeal – even by the standards of the day. Her concern that this appeal could instigate racial violence was not unfounded.

    That much acknowledged, cases such as the Ross episode are noteworthy precisely because they test the limits of academic freedom. While irresponsible, demagogic, and undeniably made in appeal to the basest racial prejudices of his day, the question of whether Ross’s comments warranted the protections of free speech also directly led to the formalization of academic freedom by Dewey, Seligman, Lovejoy and others under the auspices of a new organization, the AAUP.

    It is important to remember this early precedent, as the cause célèbre that birthed the AAUP involved an incident of extremely offensive speech in support of a cause that we may rightly condemn as not only racist but maliciously so. To put it bluntly, Ross advanced an argument for racial eugenics amidst a call to arms on behalf of Aryan nationalism at a populist labor rally in a city with a very recent history of racial violence. The founding members of the AAUP believed that argument was nonetheless a protected exercise of academic freedom, and subsequently built their organization upon its direct fallout. What that entails for the modern AAUP is necessarily a matter of retrospection, albeit one that should be engaged on account of the organization’s own modern relationship to the ongoing academic freedom debate.

    How John Rawls tried to put Democracy in Chains

    Posted By on December 19, 2017

    I’ve spent the past week at the Hoover Institution, researching the early origins of James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s 1962 book The Calculus of Consent. While working in the papers of W.H. Hutt, South African economist who spent 1966-67 as a visiting professor at Buchanan and Tullock’s research center at the University of Virginia, I came across a fascinating set of documents. They revealed an early 1960s exchange of correspondence and papers between Buchanan/Tullock and the political philosopher John Rawls.

    The complex but overlapping relationship between Buchanan and Rawls is well known. Buchanan wrote of it at length in his later works. Rawls similarly referenced the Calculus in his own modern classic,  A Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls was, of course, a famously left-liberal thinker while Buchanan and Tullock are typically associated with the libertarian right.

    The exchange in the Hutt papers is distinctive though for its early date. Rawls sent Buchanan and Tullock an early draft of his paper “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice,” along with comments acknowledging the overlap between the economists’ arguments and his own. The corresponding letter is undated, but textual clues indicate it was written between the date on the draft of Rawls’ paper (December 28, 1961) and its appearance in print as a chapter in Nomos VI, which came out in early 1963. This puts the letter in the immediate vicinity of the Calculus being published in 1962.

    Rawls’ accompanying note contains a fascinating passage where he further develops the relationship between majority rule and justice, essentially concluding that there is none. Rather, majority rule is simply a mechanism to be evaluated by external criteria, and comparatively to other rules:

    “In the second part of the Chapter on Liberty I discuss majority rule and adopt a view in many ways similar to yours, but not I think in all respects. In any case, I agree that majority-rule is just a rule to be adopted on rational grounds like any other, given experience with it etc. Majority rule as a principle of justice I agree is absurd. On my view the principles of justice put constraints on the constitution, & on all political majorities; and majority rule is rational only where it can be supposed that majorities will limit themselves by the principles of justice, and where reasonable differences of opinion may exist and where the disadvantages & injustices of other rules might be worse.”

    How Hutt ended up with this letter is itself a mystery, but most likely relates to his own work on the Calculus by applying its principles to the problem of racial discrimination.

    In any case, Rawls’ repudiation of a claimed inherent link between majoritarianism and justice makes for an interesting juxtaposition to other recent characterizations of Buchanan and Tullock’s work. Based on this evidence and those same characterizations, it would appear that John Rawls approved of the notion of putting “democracy in chains.”


    About MacLean and the matter of John C. Calhoun

    Posted By on December 10, 2017

    Several months ago when I first entered the discussion about Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains, I called attention to her misuse of historical evidence to write pro-slavery theorist John C. Calhoun into the intellectual lineage of economist James M. Buchanan. MacLean’s claim struck me as odd at the time, because Calhoun’s name does not appear anywhere in Buchanan’s published works, which extend across more than six decades.

    A number of MacLean’s defenders at the time excused her on this point, suggesting that she had somehow discerned and extracted Calhoun’s supposed influence on Buchanan by “reading” it through the unwritten subtext of his works and the surrounding context of the 1950s desegregation debate. This explanation veered suspiciously close to simply making things up, as is MacLean’s apparent penchant. But nonetheless, she has persisted in aggressively pushing the Calhoun claim and a number of her supportive readers have credulously repeated it as if it were now a matter of established fact.

    We can now affirmatively put that claim to rest, showing that it is nothing more than a figment of MacLean’s own imagination. We now know this because Buchanan’s co-author Gordon Tullock specifically addressed the relationship between Calhoun and the Calculus of Consent in a 1975 commentary essay in the American Political Science Review. As Tullock bluntly put it, that relationship was non-existent. As he stated, he had not even read so much as a single page of Calhoun. He further stated that the same was the case of James M. Buchanan, even as Buchanan had a greater interest than himself in other forms of political philosophy.

    The pertinent excerpt is below:

    Note that Tullock also went into the intellectual history of the economic thinkers who most directly influenced the unanimity rule concept in the Calculus of Consent: Vilfredo Pareto and Knut Wicksell. As he explained, there was no reason to believe that either of them were familiar with Calhoun. Therefore Calhoun could not have even been an indirect influence upon Buchanan and Tullock’s own work.

    As a brief aside on this subject, let me also suggest a further explanation for how MacLean came to her unsupported thesis linking Calhoun to Buchanan. Quite simply, she already had her narrative mapped out before she even knew Buchanan’s name. She then discovered Buchanan and attempted to shoehorn him into that narrative, despite having no evidence to support it. The following excerpt derives from a 2007 working paper that MacLean presented when she taught at Northwestern University. Note that Calhoun is identified as the intellectual ancestor of a nefarious “movement” with the very same harmful motives she alleges in her book. Except instead of Buchanan, the guilty party consists simply of nameless “neo-liberals.”

    Quite simply, MacLean retrofitted Buchanan’s name into an unfounded presupposition that she already held. And now as we’ve seen, not only did she lack evidence linking Buchanan to Calhoun – that link is also directly refuted by Buchanan’s co-author Gordon Tullock.

    In short, MacLean’s entire thesis regarding Calhoun is specious and fabricated nonsense.

    It is time for Viking Books to correct or retract Democracy in Chains.

    Why Universities have shifted to the political left in the past 20 years

    Posted By on December 3, 2017

    University faculty ranks have long been thought of as bastions of the political left, and with good reason: sizable majorities of professors self-identify as modern liberal or left-leaning in their politics. This trend dates back to the first comprehensive faculty survey on political leanings in 1969.

    The leftward tilt of college professors used to be more static than it is today. Between 1969 and 1998, self-identified liberals consistently made up between 40 and 45% of faculty in American colleges and universities, but they did not waver much from this range. While these totals outnumbered conservatives and moderates, all three groups were relatively stable in size. In fact, several academic studies published between the 1970s and 1990s pointed to this stable pattern as evidence that long-running conservative grievances about “faculty bias” were overblown.

    Then something changed.

    Starting in the mid-1990s, the number of college professors who self-identified as conservatives or even moderates began to rapidly decline. In 1998, moderates made up 37% of the academy and conservatives made up 18%. In the most recent survey from 2013, moderates and conservatives dropped to 27% and 12% respectively. Meanwhile, self-identified liberals exploded in number. They sat at 45% in 1998, and have grown to 60% in the most recent survey. That’s a shift of over 15 percentage points away from conservatives and moderates and toward self-identified liberals.

    The chart below depicts this trend using the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) faculty survey (1989-present) combined with its predecessor, the Carnegie Commission Higher Education Survey (1969, 1975, 1984). The once-disputed leftward shift in academia is now unambiguously attested in recent data.

    But why has this shift occurred after several decades of stability? By turning to other measures we may catch a glimpse of the answer. It has to do with faculty composition, as well acute leftward biases in specific academic disciplines.

    As a recent article by political scientist Sam Abrams documented, some disciplines skew substantially further to the left than academia as a whole. While roughly 60% of all professors self-identify as liberals, that number tops 80% among English professors. History, political science, fine arts, and the other humanities and social sciences are all substantially more liberal than the academy as a whole. They have also shifted further left with the overall trends seen in the chart above.

    The leftward skew of the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences matters because these disciplines have also exhibited faster growth in faculty employment than the rest of academia, despite having notoriously saturated job markets in many cases (note that job market saturation does not mean the total number of humanities jobs are declining – it means that the number humanities job seekers continues to outpace the growth in humanities jobs).

    We can see this pattern in a second chart from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, depicting the percentage of university faculty who work in each academic field:

    By taking a closer look at the trend lines, we may see how left-leaning areas of the academy have grown faster than the rest in the past decade. For our purposes, set aside the dashed line representing “Health Sciences,” which is actually a result of the boom in nursing and other healthcare professional degrees in recent years.

    Among the remaining disciplines, the biggest gains in faculty shares are fine arts (1.82 percentage points), humanities (1.01), and social sciences (0.83). By comparison, the two biggest declines in percentage points were the natural sciences (-1.79) and engineering (-0.87).

    The pattern becomes even more visible when we group together all of the disciplines that skew further to the left of the academy. Humanities, fine arts, and social science faculty all lean further left than academia as a whole. Jointly, they posted a 3.66 percentage point gain in their overall share of faculty. When combined together, the much-discussed STEM disciplines lost 2.65 percentage points from their early 2000s faculty share over the last decade.  Note that while self-identified liberals are still the largest group within the STEM discipline faculty as well, they tend to be less left-leaning than faculty as a whole.

    What this basically means is that the most politically skewed disciplines – the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences – have grown their faculty at a faster rate than other less politicized disciplines. This skewed growth pattern has increased their footprint on campus relative to other faculty, and it has done so at a time of an additional leftward shift in their own ranks. The cumulative effect is to pull the university system as a whole even further to the left, yielding the overall pattern we have seen in the faculty survey at a time when the American public at large has maintained a fairly stable liberal/conservative divide.

    The Dysfunctional Incentives of Academic Peer Review

    Posted By on November 21, 2017

    Academic peer review is a highly dysfunctional process, replete with perverse incentives and maddeningly Kafkaesque outcomes. We chase after peer reviewed outlets nonetheless because they are also the closest thing that academia has to a vetting mechanism for research productivity, and thus promotion. This creates a number of incentives toward increasing the volume of output, including papers on obscure topics that are neither read nor cited in any meaningful way. Note that it is possible to reach this conclusion and yet hold that the existence of peer review is still superior to no peer review at all. But peer review has many problems.

    The Case of the Misbehaving Referee:

    To illustrate, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario in which a well-regarded journal solicits reports from two referees.

    Referee A is a lazy procrastinator who has expertise in a topic but also strong and opinionated views on the same. He waits until the last minute to even read the paper – some 6 months after he receives it – and does a sloppy and desultory job. He doesn’t substantively engage with the assigned paper’s content and even misrepresents some of its points through simple inattention and carelessness. When making a recommendation at the end of his report, he instead defaults to his own prior opinions about the subject of the paper. Those opinions are strong and precede his analysis. He therefore recommends rejection.

    Referee B is a more conscientious and thoughtful reader. She too is an expert in the topic, but is more open to new and innovative angles of looking at familiar problems. She’s impressed by the manuscript and spends several hours reading it, writing up thoughtful and constructive comments. Her comments indicate the paper is good and should eventually be published – indeed, she thinks it would be a tragedy to reject it and she offers multiple detailed suggestions that are intended to polish it up into final form. She recommends modest Revise & Resubmit with an inclination to publish.

    The editor of the journal in this scenario is strapped for time, as most editors tend to be. The journal in question is also high ranked and receives far more submissions than it can ever hope to print. It may reject 95 out of every 100 submissions it receives, and view that as a point of pride – its reputation for exclusivity. Yet in order to manage these considerations from sheer volume alone, the editor must also take steps to reduce his time commitments to each piece. He therefore takes on a largely deferential and sometimes absentee approach. He uses referee reports to screen and reduce the strain of volume on the journal’s resources. For perfectly rational reasons of time management, the editor adopts a default position of rejecting any manuscript unless the referees reach a consensus and both decide to advance it to publication.

    Since this hypothetical article only has one favorable report and one hostile – albeit lazy – report, it automatically gets moved into the reject box.

    But recall that in our scenario, not all referees are giving the article an equal amount of attention or weight. Recall that Referee A, the lazy guy, recommended a rejection on grounds that had more to do with his own priors than the manuscript’s merits. He clearly turned in an inferior product to the editor. Referee B, the conscientious reader who offered detailed and thoughtful comments, not only saw promise in the piece – she took time to improve it toward a better scholarly product. But her views were dismissed nonetheless, on account of a built-in bias toward the other referee’s veto.

    In short, the rejection of this piece does not reasonably reflect upon anything about its academic merits – it is strictly a byproduct of a lazy reviewer doing a very poor job, and a journal editing convention designed to reduce the stack of submissions that must be considered at length.

    Editing Incentive Structures:

    What effectively emerges in this sort of a referee process is a veto-by-laziness. Or any number of other reasons that could produce bad behavior by the referee, be it willful mendacity, laziness, incompetence, craziness, or some combination thereof.

    Now thoughtful editors might exercise a little discretion at several points in the process to rein in this type of referee. They could discount the weight assigned to a suspect reader’s report. They might choose not to use a referee who develops a reputation for producing lazy and mistaken results. They could override a bad referee report and instruct the author to ignore it. They might even send the report back to the referee, explaining its deficiency and asking for a higher quality product.

    And yet the incentives of editing a journal are probably aligned against all of these things, all else equal. Time is scarce, and editors of prestigious journals tend to be accomplished scholars with heavy research expectations of their own. Ask any one of them and they will usually tell you it’s a thankless task. Unfortunately, that often means the path of least resistance to clearing out a queue of submissions to a high-prestige journal is to default to the rejection pattern described above. Unless a piece garners unanimous support in the first round, it becomes a pass – even if one or more of the referees engages in what any sensible person would independently recognize as bad behavior. Or sloppiness. Or dereliction of duty in the review process.

    The problem that emerges is fundamentally a matter of incentives, and specifically the fact that the misbehaving referee has almost no social incentive to improve his or her behavior. Yes, that referee might not be asked to review for the same journal again. But that’s about the worst thing that could happen to him/her, and since refereeing is a largely thankless task with no compensation and very little external prestige, being dropped by the editor over poor performance is hardly a penalty – in fact, some academics might even desire the relief of not being bothered again!

    There’s also very little visible cost suffered by the editor (although there might be unseen costs, especially if a journal passes on a piece that later becomes an important and widely cited article elsewhere – here’s a case in point). The rejection helps to clear out the submissions pile in which a vastly disproportionate number of authors are seeking an extremely scarce amount of space in a prestigious journal. The editor is also in a secure position of power over a deeply subjective publishing process, meaning his own editing “errors” – i.e. the rejection of a promising piece on flimsy reasons and bad referee behavior – will not meaningfully register upon his or her continuation in that position. There’s basically no other feedback loop than for the rejected author to plead his/her case to the editor after the fact – a practice that may be easily ignored if the editor wishes, and that is heavily frowned upon in some academic disciplines.

    So who does bear the cost of a the lazy or misbehaving referee described in the scenario above? Aside from abstract concepts of quality and the value of the lost academic discourse, there are two readily identifiable losers from the misbehaving referee scenario.

    The first and most obvious is the author of the submission. He or she must endure the slow pace and other inefficiencies of a prolonged review process, only to emerge from it with essentially nothing – a rejection by the editor and a largely useless reader report from the misbehaving referee.

    The author might gain helpful comments from the other referee who did her job in the scenario described above (Referee B), but even this is delivered in an exceedingly inefficient and cumbersome manner that could likely be achieved at much less cost and effort through other means. A helpful referee report is indeed a consolation prize, but it’s a very modest one that could just as easily be obtained by contacting a few academics over email and asking them to read a draft of a paper, or by presenting that paper at a conference that also solicits formal comments.

    Let me also make the suggestion though that the conscientious referee is also penalized in the scenario described above. She does in fact perform a helpful service, but she gains no reward for doing so other than the distant satisfaction of advising a nameless and faceless author who now possesses an unfairly rejected paper and must begin the entire process again elsewhere. That might be sufficient for some people, but I’d wager that most referees who devote several hours to providing feedback on a paper would become less inclined to do so if they learned that their efforts were essentially being ignored by the editor. I can also attest to this experience myself – there are certain journals I have refereed for in the past only to find out that the editor was dismissive of my comments save to pass them on to the rejected author. If asked to review for some of these journals again, I know I’d devote less time to typing up thoughtful suggestions that I fully expect to be ignored. I might even decline to review in the first place. Now make the reasonable assumption that other potential conscientious referees would respond similarly to having their comments brushed aside and largely ignored by an editor. The overall incentive is to avoid spending the time that is necessary to provide conscientious comments.

    A modest improvement:

    I would not expect there to be an easy fix to any of the problems described above, nor do I have one to offer. But I will suggest a way to alter some of the incentive structures slightly and in a direction that improves them.

    Specifically, journals might adopt a process that allows referees to review the comments of other referees before a final decision is made on the piece. (Note: some journals do currently share the reports between referees after the review process is complete, which is better than nothing but still a very minimal check upon referee misbehavior). In the scenario I describe here though, I envision something along the lines of a 1-week review period in which referees are invited to read their fellow referees’ reports, and then permitted to send a short supplemental note to the journal’s editor addressing any issues of quality that may be evident in those reports. It wouldn’t be a magic bullet, but it may create a touch of internal pressure in the review process as a conscientious referee could call attention to laziness, mendacity, or other types of misbehavior – all of which are currently costless to the misbehaving referee.

    Doing so would also add more work for the editor, but I’d argue in a good way – an editor might be perfectly rational in deferring to unanimity or allowing the lazy referee to veto a decent article for suspect reasons, simply because it reduces the submission queue. But I think we can all agree that this too is a lazy practice that reduces the quality of a journal. A small internal incentive provided by the aforementioned round of referee review might change that slightly for the better. Besides, a lazy referee is also more likely to ignore the secondary round thus amplifying the voice of the conscientious referee. This in itself could become its own signal to the editor on a more efficient and appropriate weighting of their respective comments.

    Buchanan’s position on vouchers and segregation: the documents MacLean missed

    Posted By on October 23, 2017

    A central claim of Democracy in Chains holds that James M. Buchanan and the Thomas Jefferson Center (TJC) for Political Economy provided complicit aid and assistance to the segregationist “massive resisters” of late 1950s and early 1960s Virginia. As I’ve documented, this claim is both thinly attested in evidence and contradicted by what we do know about Buchanan’s views on segregation from his other writings – both before school desegregation and after. Still, Buchanan’s comments on segregation from the civil rights era itself are sparse, and author Nancy MacLean frequently exploits this presumed silence to conjure up an unholy alliance between Buchanan/the TJC and the segregationist political machine of Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.

    MacLean generally stops short of linking Buchanan and Byrd outright, and does so by necessity. There is no evidence the two ever crossed paths in any substantive way. So instead of calling Buchanan a segregationist, she simply contends that he utilized the opportunity of segregation to advance a libertarian school voucher agenda at the expense of black students. To get to Byrd, she advances historically unsupported claims of a connection between Buchanan and Byrd-allied newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick. But even more so, she relies on Buchanan’s own presumed silence on segregation to “read between the lines” of his voucher advocacy and discern a motive that is not evident from any straightforward reading.

    But what if MacLean missed an important document in her research? What if Buchanan actually left a record that reflected unfavorably on segregation, and specifically explained its adversarial relationship to educational competition? Would Democracy in Chains warrant a substantial correction by its publisher and/or author? After all, the entire first half of the book is built upon a presumed yet never demonstrated relationship between Buchanan’s support for vouchers and the Byrd machine’s “massive resistance.” MacLean herself has even made this a point of primary emphasis in her public lectures on the book, and several of her most positive reviewers have interpreted the book as having “proven” a salacious and discrediting link between libertarianism and segregationism.

    It turns out that such a document exonerating Buchanan does exist, and MacLean completely missed it. But first a little historical context.

    In 1959 the state of Virginia adopted a modest tuition grant program that allowed students to receive up to $250 per term to attend a different school, public or private, than the one to which they were geographically assigned. The program was adopted in a special session of the legislature, shortly after state and federal courts struck down key provisions of a Byrd-backed segregation law in January 1959. The voucher proposal emerged from the political center of the time as something of a bridge between moderate integrationists and segregationists who were not in the hard-line “massive resistance” camp of Byrd – or who, in the case of Gov. J. Lindsay Almond, broke from former allegiances to the Byrd machine. Some members of the legislature backed the proposal for reasons that were without doubt motivated by segregationist positions. Specifically, vouchers would allow segregationist parents to remove their children from schools facing integration and seek an alternative means.

    Note however that this position diverged from the “massive resisters” in several important ways. First, a sizable number of segregationist hardliners actually opposed the voucher program on the grounds that it would undermine their continued resistance and open the door to the integration of public schools. This is the position adopted by the attorneys for the Charlottesville school system when they contended that vouchers would open up formerly-white held seats in the public schools, which could then be “engulfed” by the enrollment of black students. Stopping vouchers actually became a key part of their strategy to preserve segregation.

    Second, the designers of the tuition grant program on the state legislature’s Perrow Commission officially and intentionally made its terms race-neutral. They did so knowing that a racially restrictive voucher program would succumb to a federal court challenge. They had no other choice than to make the tuition grants available on non-racial grounds. This meant that black students were eligible for vouchers as well (and a small number actually made use of them during the program’s existence). It also meant that students in segregated schools could actually use the vouchers to move to integrated schools, both public and private. In fact, a federal judge made use of the statute’s race-neutral language in an important 1961 ruling against Prince Edward County, effectively prohibiting it from using the tuition grant program on account of its decision to shutter the public schools in response to impending integration.

    The race-neutral language of the tuition grant statute became a flash point of contention during the early operation of the program – particularly among (a) segregationist hardliners who believed that vouchers would lead to “engulfment” of the public schools and (b) public school teachers unions, who wanted to restrict and rescind the voucher program at all costs.

    Initial enrollment in the tuition grant system was limited. Just over 4,700 students signed up in its first year of operations. By 1962, the numbers had doubled to almost 9,500 students (note that Prince Edward County was excluded by court order from participating in the program, so its students are not part of this figure despite a number of historically careless attempts to causally link the county’s notorious school closures to the voucher program).

    The Richmond Times-Dispatch (September 2, 1962) conducted an extensive study of the program’s first couple of years and noticed two interesting results where segregation was concerned. First, after conducting an extensive interview study of parents who used the tuition grants, they discovered that the most commonly cited reasons for participation related to conventional factors such as school quality, location, and transportation. While segregationist uses undeniably existed, a much smaller subset of parents stated that they were using the vouchers to remove their children from integrated schools to go to “segregation academies.” Other non-racial purposes appear to have been more common. Second, an analysis of tuition grant enrollments in selected population centers showed sizable numbers of students being removed from schools that were still segregated and placed into schools that had begun to integrate – or precisely the opposite of the segregationists’ position. While this latter statistic does not necessarily prove an overt integrationist intention by these parents, it does illustrate that some parents were availing themselves of vouchers for reasons other than race.

    The growing use of tuition grants for non-segregationist purposes became sufficiently obvious by the early 1960s that it provoked the ire of the state’s main public school teacher’s union, the Virginia Education Association (the state affiliate of the NEA). Whereas MacLean writes of a wholly imaginary unholy alliance between Buchanan and the Byrd machine, a documented coalition emerged between the VEA and the hard line segregationists. The VEA spelled out its position at length in the November 1964 issue of its newsletter:

    “It is a well-known fact that many superintendents, many school boards, many legislators and local governing bodies are becoming less and less enchanted with Virginia’s Pupil Scholarship Program because of its patent abuses.

    Everyone knows that the intent of the General Assembly in establishing the scholarship program was to provide an escape for any pupil who might object, or whose parents might object to actually attending the same school with children of another race. The Pupil Scholarship Program would never have been enacted into law it the General Assembly had not been searching for a constitutionally valid way to subsidize private education for those who object to racial integration in the public schools.

    Certainly the intent was not to subsidize private education generally. The Pupil Scholarship Program is being so greatly abused as to increasingly defeat its original purpose.

    Ot the 12,181 scholarships granted in 1963-64, 10,776 were used in private schools, many of which were integrated, and 1,415 were used in public schools, many of which were integrated. Thus parents are using the grants to send their children to integrated schools which the entire purpose of the legislation was to avoid.”

    As the VEA’s general secretary argued, these “abuses” of the voucher program for non-segregationist purposes threatened to cut into the funding of the public school system. As VEA secretary Robert F. Williams explained two years prior, “The position of the Virginia Education Association is simply this: We believe that the Pupil Scholarship law was passed with the tacit purpose that it would be used only to provide grants for children whose parents did not wish to attend a desegregated school. When used for any other purpose, the purpose of the law, as we understand it, is violated.”

    The teacher’s union accordingly lobbied the state government to restrict the use of tuition grants to explicitly segregationist purposes. All other uses – including what appears to have been a majority of the vouchers – would be rendered illegal. An actual unholy alliance between the VEA teacher’s union officials and segregationists had been forged, and vouchers were their direct target.

    The 1964 Thomas Jefferson Center Statistical Appendix on Tuition Grants

    This is where Buchanan entered back into the picture. Although the 1959 article he co-authored with Warren Nutter had been almost entirely ignored in the state assembly, the two economists continued to study the state’s rudimentary tuition grant system from afar over the next several years. At one point in the early 1960s the TJC contracted with Charlottesville-based voucher advocate Leon Dure to administer a statewide survey of private schools for the purpose of creating an academic study of how the system was functioning in action. Dure has long been credited as the author of the resulting report, however this designation is mistaken. He actually left the project in mid-1964 after Nutter indicated that the TJC wanted to take it in a more statistical direction.

    The TJC completed its report in-house in December 1964, and issued it as a standalone pamphlet featuring a reprint of the 1959 article and a series of appendixes that analyzed the previous five years of tuition grants. Of particular note is the statistical appendix, containing data analysis of both the private school survey and public records of the tuition grants. This specific appendix was issued under Buchanan’s own name and supervision. The cover letter to this section, both documenting Dure’s departure and crediting the final report to the TJC under his own direction, appears below:

    Sure enough, this neglected and overlooked document contains an extended commentary on none other than the VEA’s public efforts to curtail all non-segregationist uses of the state’s tuition grant program. As the report explained:

    “The Virginia Education Association, the organization of public school officials and teachers, early denounced “abuse” of the tuition grant plan. It meant by this expression any use of scholarships except to avoid racial intermixing. Neither the present law nor the regulations of the State Board of Education contain such limitation, although the 1956 law limited the payment of grants to parents who objected to sending their children to integrated public schools. Moreover, many public school officials have declared their policy to be one of discouraging tuition grant and, in one case, a local superintendent stated that the plan was so “absurd” his school board had concealed it from his community.”

    An extended note at the end of the appendix proceeded to systematically pick apart the VEA’s segregation-supporting posture. The segregationist limitation of the 1956 law had been removed due to its unconstitutionality when the new tuition grant program was enacted in 1959. The program’s legislative history since then provided no support for the VEA’s attempts to restrict vouchers to segregationist uses. Quite the contrary, non-segregationist tuition grant uses were already well known and permitted within the first year of the program’s operation. As the TJC report noted:

    “It is perhaps notable that when the scholarship statute was slightly revised and reenacted in 1960, scholarships were being used in integrated situations. The vote on scholarships was almost unanimous in 1959 and completely so in 1960. No action of any kind was taken in the regular sessions of 1962 and 1964, during all of which time the use of grants in integrated situations grew steadily.”

    The TJC study further investigated the program’s uses with statistical analysis. Although black students represented a small minority of grant recipients, their enrollment grew dramatically from only 48 grant registrants in 1959 to 423 in 1963. The system was not without faults as “the school system of one locality may refuse admittance to any pupil from another locality.” Yet their findings also confirmed what the VEA denounced and derided as “abuses” of the system: “that pupils have been shifted from nonintegrated to integrated schools as well as from integrated to nonintegrated ones.” Reasons such as geography, school district quality, and transportation were all important considerations in parents’ decisions to use vouchers.

    The TJC report did not endorse the particulars of the Virginia tuition grant program or make political recommendations – it only sought to study and quantify its effects from afar, and analyze them economically. Notably, the program was still exceedingly limited in its scope. Some counties had no student participants at all, and others numbered only in the dozens. Voucher use was particularly strong in the Hampton Roads region of the state where multiple jurisdictions in close geographic proximity presented parents with a broader assortment of choices.

    The study also acknowledged that segregation persisted in both public and private schools, even though trends evinced growing use of the vouchers for non-segregationist purposes and by black students. Weighed against the alternatives though, the TJC report concluded that “it appears that the grants have been used increasingly to break down political bounds and to permit a wider choice of both public and private facilities.”

    All of these findings stand in direct conflict with Nancy MacLean’s depiction of Buchanan in Democracy in Chains. While it is unclear if she knew about the 1964 report and omitted it, or simply missed it due to a careless accounting of the archives, it represents a substantial and complicating oversight in her project. It is difficult to read “massive resistance” or a Byrd-allied position into this report, undertaken with Buchanan’s direct oversight and input. By contrast, it is the public school teacher’s union – an entity that, like all unions, MacLean appears to view as sacrosanct – that actually struck a devil’s bargain with segregation, and did so in an explicit attempt to defeat vouchers.

    In any case, the newly uncovered 1964 appendix only illustrates how far off base MacLean’s claims are in relation to Buchanan’s actual activities and positions. Far from aligning with the “massive resistors,” Buchanan’s position on segregation was consistently critical and his view of vouchers consistently held that they could be used to alleviate the ills of this institution. Democracy in Chains warrants a substantial correction by its publisher, if not outright retraction on account of its numerous and pervasive errors of historical fact.


    Speaking of Prince Edward County and school vouchers…

    Posted By on October 22, 2017

    As I continue the ongoing dissection of Democracy in Chains, I’d like to turn next to a claim that’s at the heart of its narrative on school desegregation: the notorious closing of Prince Edward County, Virginia’s public school system from 1959 to 1964 as a strategy to avoid racial integration.

    Nancy MacLean actually claims that she first discovered James M. Buchanan by accident from a footnote in James Hershman’s work while researching the history of the Prince Edward school closures. We now know that in doing so she appears to have constructed her entire narrative upon a typo in Hershman’s work. But the Prince Edward issue still warrants historical investigation, as MacLean and numerous others have claimed that the closing was a direct result of Virginia’s rudimentary experiment with tuition grants, or school vouchers, between 1959 and 1965. According to this claim, the state’s modest tuition grant program somehow made it feasible to shutter the public schools and transfer all the white students into a private “segregation academy.” The result, of course, infamously shut black students out of the schools entirely.

    There’s a problem with this narrative though. For most of the period of the Prince Edward school closure, students in the county were not actually using the state tuition grant program.

    Prince Edward set up its whites-only “segregation academy” to open in the fall of 1959 as a response to an integration order, yet for the first year of operation (the 1959-60 term) this school was run tuition-free and relied on private donations by segregationists.

    In the 1960-61 term, about 1,300 white students in Prince Edward County did apply for and receive tuition vouchers of between $225-250 a piece through the state program. Their use of the vouchers came to a crashing halt though in late August 1961 before the start of the new school term because of a court injunction barring the program’s operations in the county.

    Judge Oren R. Lewis suspended the program on the grounds that Prince Edward County had violated the “freedom of choice” required in the voucher program’s statute. By closing its public schools, Prince Edward actually denied educational choice as specified by law. They were therefore in violation of the statute creating the tuition grant program. As Lewis’s ruling noted:

    “An order will therefore be entered restraining and enjoining the County Superintendent of Prince Edward County, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, their agents and employees, and all persons working in concert with them, from receiving, processing or approving any applications for state scholarship grants from persons residing in Prince Edward County so long as the public schools of Prince Edward County remain closed.”

    From August 1961 until the reopening of the Prince Edward schools by Supreme Court ruling in 1964, Prince Edward County therefore had no access to the tuition grant program. Combined with the first year being funded through private contributions, the tuition grant program was only operational in Prince Edward County for one school year out of the five year closure period.

    State records reflect this reality, as may be seen in a 1964 study by the University of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson Center (pictured above). Prince Edward County appeared on the list of counties and independent cities that had zero students registered to participate in the tuition grant program.

    So there you have it. Even the claim connecting Prince Edward County to the voucher program is based on flimsy evidence. The county’s white residents were only able to utilize the program for one school year before being barred by the court because they ran afoul of the statute’s clear letter.

    The Nutter-Buchanan School Choice Paper: Evidence from the Timeline

    Posted By on October 20, 2017

    In my last several posts on the Virginia School of public choice economics, I’ve explored the background of a 1959 article on school choice by Warren Nutter and James M. Buchanan (hereafter referred to as N-B 1959) that’s at the center of the controversy surrounding Democracy in Chains. Today I want to take a look at the timeline for the article itself, as it is in clear tension with another of Nancy MacLean’s claims about Buchanan.

    To briefly recap, MacLean presents the article, N-B 1959, as Exhibit A in her attempt to link Buchanan and Nutter to the pro-segregation “massive resistance” movement in Virginia. MacLean claims that by advocating school vouchers, Buchanan forged an unholy alliance of sorts with the “massive resisters” of Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.’s political machine to thwart court-ordered integration of Virginia’s schools. She also specifically claims that the article, N-B 1959, gained an important enthusiast in the form of James J. Kilpatrick, the Byrd-supporting, Calhoun-touting segregationist editor of the Richmond News-Leader. In MacLean’s telling, Kilpatrick becomes a key link between Buchanan and Byrd in the immediate political environment of 1959 Virginia, as well as a larger intellectual link that supposedly establishes Calhoun’s place as the “intellectual lodestar” of public choice theory.

    Let’s also review as well what I’ve already established on this subject in prior posts:

    When evaluating these claims it is important to note that the politics of Virginia’s newspapers in this era were extremely complex. Kilpatrick’s News-Leader adopted a militantly pro-segregation stance that even invoked Calhoun’s concepts of interposition and nullification as strategies to resist desegregation. Dabney’s Times-Dispatch is a more nuanced story. Dabney had a longstanding reputation as a supporter of civil rights and had editorialized in favor of integration of Richmond’s bus system. He personally adopted a moderate stance on school desegregation that favored limited and gradual introduction of black students into white-majority schools. But he was also restricted by the newspaper’s owner from editorializing against the Byrd machine (Dabney explained in several interviews later in life that he wanted to take a stronger critical stance on “massive resistance” but had been limited in doing so by his publisher). While far from integrationist, the Times-Dispatch was clearly the more moderate newspaper in Richmond and thus an important venue choice for printing N-B 1959.

    But what about MacLean’s narrative linking Buchanan to Kilpatrick? We can actually put that to rest by recounting the timeline of N-B 1959:

    • January 19 – State and federal courts in Virginia issue two rulings striking down provisions of the state’s segregationist “massive resistance” laws
    • Late January – the Virginia general assembly undertakes a revision of the state’s education policy in response to the decisions. A joint legislative committee is convened under State Sen. Mosby Perrow to review proposals. It becomes known as the Perrow Commission. Chairman Perrow, and later Gov. Lindsay Almond, begin to break with the Byrd machine over maintaining “massive resistance” and explore ways to allow gradual integration.
    • February 10 – Nutter and Buchanan finish the draft of their voucher paper. It does not wade into the politics of segregation, but summarizes the economic concepts behind school competition.
    • February 13 – Nutter and Buchanan circulate a copy of N-B 1959 to members of the Perrow Commission.
    • February 18 – Nutter sends a copy of the N-B 1959 to Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago for review and suggestions.
    • March 2 – Friedman replies with comments and suggestions to circulate the paper more broadly.
    • March 23 – John S. Battle, Jr., the attorney for the Charlottesville school board, gives a widely reported public speech in which he attacks vouchers as a backdoor way to “engulf” the public schools with black children.
    • April 1 – Nutter and Buchanan publicly release N-B 1959 (this is the cover letter that MacLean misrepresents, using the phrase “letting the chips fall where they may”)
    • April 12-13 – The Richmond Times-Dispatch publishes N-B 1959 in a two-part installment, almost certainly arranged by Nutter who was friends with its editor Dabney.

    I’ve found no evidence that the legislature took notice of N-B 1959 or utilized it in crafting policy. In fact, Nutter and Buchanan essentially predicted it would be ignored due to the low esteem they held for the state’s politicians (again, this is noted in the cover letter that MacLean misrepresented). But there’s also another conspicuous absence from this entire chain of events: James J. Kilpatrick.

    It just so happens that we can also rule out any coordination with Kilpatrick from surviving letters in his papers at the University of Virginia.

    Recall that Nutter and Buchanan publicly released their paper on April 1, 1959 as per Friedman’s suggestion. They mailed out copies to several figures who were involved in all sides of the debate. For example, Francis P. Miller – the leader of the anti-Byrd “liberal” wing of Virginia’s Democratic Party – received a copy. Miller was a moderate integrationist based in Charlottesville and, though skeptical of vouchers, had been involved in the local debate over whether to include them in the revisions to Virginia’s school system that were underway.

    Another recipient of N-B 1959 was Leon S. Dure, a retired newspaperman in Charlottesville who had taken up the cause of school choice. Nutter also provided Dure with a copy of Milton Friedman’s famous 1955 paper on vouchers at the same time (pictured above. Dure also went on to describe Friedman as an “ardent integrationist” in several letters and documents after reading the pamphlet).

    Dure is a complicated figure who will warrant more attention in  a later post. But briefly, he can be thought of as a sort of a bridge figure who worked between the moderate ends of the integrationist and segregationist factions of the political scene at the time (Dure actually started out in the mid 1950s as a moderate segregationist who was nonetheless skeptical of interposition and “massive resistance” and migrated to supporting gradual integration).

    Dure is also identified as a key figure for the “moderates” in the 1959 session by James Hershman (MacLean’s brief discussion of Dure, by contrasts, strongly implies that he’s closer to the “massive resistance” camp even though she claims Hershman is her source on the Virginia school desegregation fight). He was one of the influences that prompted Gov. Almond to break with the “massive resisters” of the Byrd machine during the Perrow Commission hearings, nudging the state government slightly but importantly away from hardline segregationism. Dure was primarily a voucher advocate and worked with all parties he thought he could convince, sometimes with greater success than in others. He lobbied Almond and Perrow aggressively to moderate their former “massive resistance” stance. But he was also a close friend of Francis P. Miller, leader of the state’s liberal Democrats and the anti-Byrd faction, and tried to convince Miller to adopt the voucher program from an integrationist perspective.

    Notably, Dure’s version of a voucher scheme long predated the N-B 1959 paper. Dure’s own proposal was actually devised as an attempted constitutional argument with the input of several other academics, none of whom were Buchanan or Nutter. The actual academic influences on Dure were almost all law professors. He worked closely in planning his legislative testimony in the Spring of 1959 with UVA Law School dean F.D.G. Ribble and professor Hardy Dillard, and developed his arguments over the years through an extended correspondence with former Justice Department attorney and Columbia University professor Herbert Wechsler (perhaps best known today as a mentor of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg). Dure also submitted an advance copy of his testimony to the liberal Democrat leader Francis P. Miller for comments and review. All of this appears to have taken place in January-March 1959 before Dure even knew of N-B 1959’s existence.

    Buchanan and Nutter appear to have entered Dure’s line of vision as almost an afterthought to his earlier testimony, albeit one that he welcomed as another voice in favor of vouchers from another perspective that he had not considered. The two economists were making an economic argument based on Friedman’s work and had little connection to the legal world’s interpretations of case law. But Dure did find enough agreement with the N-B 1959 paper that he started appending it onto his own arguments as the additional “economic case” for vouchers. Buchanan and Nutter also briefly discussed the economic implications of Dure’s plan (at the time before the Perrow Commission) in the paper. Due to this overlap of analysis, they sent Dure a copy on April 1 when they decided to publicly release it.

    Dure was also a prolific writer of letters to the editor and heavily employed these means during the Perrow Commission hearings to promote his position of pairing a state government retreat from “massive resistance” with gradual integration by way of a voucher system. When he read the N-B 1959 paper, he similarly fired off another round of letters to the editor to tout the findings of the study in relation to the oft-expressed concern that vouchers would undermine the finances of public education. To allay this concern, Dure pointed to “an economic study of ‘freedom of choice’ just prepared by James M. Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter, professors of the University of Virginia Department of Economics.” One of Dure’s letters went to James J. Kilpatrick of the News-Leader (he ran it in the April 9 issue, but it was likely sent about a week prior based on the date Dure received a copy of the report).

    But Dure’s letter also establishes something else about Kilpatrick, because Kilpatrick responded to Dure with a private letter of his own on April 6 (located in the Leon Dure papers at UVA). Kilpatrick’s reply indicates that he had not yet seen the “Buchnan Study” (sic) as of this late date – he said he’d “keep on the lookout” for it.

    Subsequent issues of the News-Leader in the following weeks do not appear to contain any references to the N-B 1959 paper aside from Dure, and Kilpatrick does not appear to have corresponded with Nutter or Buchanan about its contents. So it appears that he either did not receive it, or ignored it.

    Dabney’s newspaper would run the N-B 1959 paper in the Times-Dispatch of April 12, just six days later. As we may see by simply looking at the timeline above, the April 6 date basically excludes Kilpatrick from the chain of the article’s dissemination until only a few days before it appeared in print. That simple fact of the timeline places a severe damper on MacLean’s unfounded claim that N-B 1959 was stealthily informing Kilpatrick’s segregationist editorials, or her strong insinuation that Buchanan and Nutter were secretly coordinating the article behind the scenes with Kilpatrick and the “massive resisters.”